People used to come to the lab to participate in research; now the lab may come to you. Carnegie Mellon’s Data Truck is a mobile social science laboratory that will let researchers conduct studies off campus.
They could study the effect of exhaustion on marathon runners crossing a finish line, for example, or test the usability of a new technology among senior citizens unable to get to campus.
"This research is central to our Quality of Life activities, which are not just about inventing new products, but also about understanding how people adopt new technologies," said Jim Osborn, executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center.
A joint venture between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh and supported by the National Science Foundation, the initiative has important applications that could help senior citizens and people with disabilities lead more independent lives.
Inside the truck’s trailer, research participants will find a waiting area and eight workstations where they will be able to answer surveys, work on computers or test new products.
“By bringing experiments to the subjects, Carnegie Mellon is at the forefront of data gathering,” said George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon and member of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR).
The CBDR studies human decision-making in such areas as consumer spending, drug addiction and the legal system.
Loewenstein recently investigated what drives people to buy lottery tickets — something that seems to be an irrational economic activity — through surveys of travelers waiting to board Greyhound buses. He said that drawing on such diverse groups of people provides a more representative base of subjects who are less likely to be knowledgeable about — and therefore defensive toward — experimentation.
The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse also plans to take the truck to underserved middle schools, where researchers hope it will motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or math.